Australia is suffering climate paralysis, but the prognosis is positive

Caption: (L-R) John Hewson, Christiana Figueres, Adam Spencer, Clover Moore and Gregor Robertson. Image: City of Sydney/Katherine Griffiths
Caption: (L-R) John Hewson, Christiana Figueres, Adam Spencer, Clover Moore and Gregor Robertson. Image: City of Sydney/Katherine Griffiths

Australia is a country blessed by the natural resources of the future –  huge land capacity, sun, wind, lithium, cobalt and dysprosium, Christiana Figueres says. These “golden eggs” of prosperity could thrust Australia into a position of geopolitical advantage. So what are we waiting for?

When Christiana Figueres visited Australia back in 2013, the country was at a crossroads on energy and climate policy. On Tuesday, the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change told an audience at Sydney Town Hall that precisely nothing had changed.

“It is a little bit concerning that I am back here four years later and I find that Australia is still in the crossroads of energy and climate policy once again,” Figueres told those gathered for the City of Sydney’s CityTalks event.

“In fact, one could say you’ve been at the same crossroads for about 10 years.”

Christiana Figueres

Concerning, but not surprising. Figueres, now vice chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, has already been exposed to the deep, cynical lows of Australia’s energy policy debate.

During her 2013 visit she made comments linking that summer’s horrendous bushfire season to climate change, which led to newly minted prime minister Tony Abbott announcing that Figueres was “talking through her hat”.

On Tuesday night, tongue-in-cheek, she donned an Akubra to offer another insight: Australia has everything it needs to become a global energy powerhouse – and it’s still not too late.

The world was undergoing an inevitable transition, Figueres said, and as it did geopolitics were shifting, thanks to rapid changes to energy and transport systems – namely the move to a renewable grid and electric cars, shafting out coal, gas and oil.

“I was taught in school that geopolitics was very linked to fossil fuels, because those countries that own the fossil fuels are really the powerhouses of the world, and we have seen wars being fought either about those fossil fuels in the ground or about the routes of transportation of those fossil fuels.”

The geopolitical power centres are shifting – and it could be in Australia’s direction

The world has changed, though, and as fossil fuels descend in influence, and renewables ascend, some important geographic shifts are occurring.

“Number one, the geographic concentration of power is no longer with those countries that have the fossil fuels. We’re having a dissolution of that geographic concentration of power because every country is very quickly being able to produce power with the energy that belongs to them … from their own sources on their own land – sun, wind, water.”

The second shift is economic power moving to those countries sitting on the minerals and rare elements going to be used for “the new technologies of the 21st century”, and also to those developing the advanced technologies.

What this meant was that Australia had multiple opportunities to take advantage of these geopolitical shifts to put it into a position of power.

Aside from our copious amount of renewable resources, Figueres said, Australia also had the world’s largest reserves of lithium – a critical element of a renewable grid and electric cars.

“A huge possibility there to exercise economic power,” Figueres said.

Australia was “sitting on huge dormant wealth”, she said.

“You have land more than any country could ever want; sun, wind that can be used for national consumption and of course for export.

“You are sitting on the golden eggs. You have lithium, you have cobalt, you have dysprosium [used in electric vehicles].

“Honestly you have everything it takes to be an absolute leader in the 21st century.”

She said Australia could also make itself a case study of how to move from fossil fuels to the new energy generation technologies of this century.

“And therefore, my friends, I look forward to returning to Australia when that future has been set and I’m certainly confident that that is not going to take 10 years.”

Christiana Figueres spoke at CityTalks – Cities taking the lead: how local action is fast-tracking global change, along with Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, former opposition leader John Hewson, and City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

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